Times Staff Writer

Just five days after 75-year-old Lucille Ball returned to series television, 72-year-old Danny Thomas does the same in "One Big Family," a new syndicated comedy debuting at 7:30 tonight on KTLA Channel 5.

He gets off to a better start, mainly because he is not positioned--at least in the opening episode--as the pivotal character. Thomas is but one member of a household in Seattle that consists of his five orphaned nieces and nephews and the eldest nephew's wife. The married couple has taken on the role of parents to the younger siblings, who range in age from 8 to 19.

That's good for Thomas, who only has to deliver one-liners and offer occasional bits of sage advice, rather than carrying the comedic ball as Lucy tried to do on her ABC premiere Saturday.

"One Big Family" has other problems, however. While its configuration is slightly different than other TV families, the individual characters are stock sitcom figures and their attempts at humor are forced. "Geography's my best subject," says one of the brothers. "I got a C in it."

On top of that, the show takes a serious turn in the second half as the youngest boy reexperiences the loss of his parents, who were killed in an automobile accident. Inasmuch as we've just met these people and have no particular feeling for them, we can't help resenting the manipulation.

"One Big Family" was created by Elias Davis, David Pollock and Paul Junger Witt, who are also the show's executive producers with Tony Thomas, Danny's son. The first episode was written by Arnold Margolin and directed by Jeff Chambers.

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